ONE week from today it will be exactly 50 years since the death of Marilyn Monroe.
Much harder to accept is the idea that she was ever really alive. Her friend Eve Arnold, the Magnum photographer, once told me a story about sitting in on a magazine interview and seeing the actress casually brushing her pubic hair as the journalist readied her tape recorder. But even as I was smiling and noting down this anecdote, I couldn’t quite believe that it had ever happened. Marilyn Monroe, at least to those born after her fatal drug overdose in 1962, has never seemed like a creature of flesh and blood and hair. She is made from peroxide and celluloid; she smells of ink and money. She is all mask, no face.
Although she has the most chronicled life of any showbusiness star, and was by any measure an extremely complex human being, there is, in both her appearance and the premature end to her life, a seductive blankness, a smooth surface on to which anyone can project their own agendas and fantasies. She was a screen idol, both idol and screen.
This is the single most important reason for our enduring fascination with Marilyn Monroe. In death, she is everybody’s, and we can make her follow our script. Victim, vamp, feminist, tramp – we cast her as we wish.
The concept that a celebrity is public property, an idea which has found its fullest expression in our era of phone hacking, arguably begins with Monroe. She welcomed this to an extent, regarding intrusion – the wolf-whistling and flashbulbs and extended microphones – as a sort of validation.
As a very pretty girl, she was used to it. She had a pleasant memory of walking to school, how passing workmen would honk their car horns and wave; how the neighbourhood paperboys would deliver free papers to her home and allow her to ride their bikes, laughing, into the caressing wind. We would regard this, these days, as rather creepy, but Norma Jeane, as she was then, soon came to consider that her apparent sexual magnetism could lead to wider fame. The schoolgirl leered at by commuters would, when she was a little older, visit Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and try to fit her foot into the prints left in concrete by established stars. She wanted, in a sense, to give herself to the world, a drive perhaps rooted in an early childhood where no one seemed to want her.
She belongs to the world now. One can buy the sense of being near her. The remaining crypt in her row at the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles is available for around a quarter of a million dollars. The house in which she died was sold two years ago for around $3.5 million. A 1999 auction of her belongings raised almost $13.5 million; a sheet of monogrammed notepaper on which she had written, in pencil, the words “he does not love me” went for $12,650 – presumably to someone who believed that they loved her very much. More significant, though, than the ownership implied by these commercial transactions is the way that Monroe can be co-opted by such an array of groups. She is available to everyone from drag-queens to social historians, to whomever cares to write their narrative across the notepaper of her short life.
There is at the moment, for instance, a resurgence of the idea that Monroe was a feminist before her time. A new book by the academic Lois Banner, who had previously dismissed the actress as a sex object, argues that she was in fact a precursor of 1960s feminism and that the famous photo in which she is laughingly holding down her billowing skirts as she stands above a subway grate shows her as a “woman on top” – aware of her erotic allure and using it for her own ends. “Is she one of the women,” wonders Banner, “who changed the world’s attitude towards women?” She also notes, as has the feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem, that Monroe’s public discussion of the sexual assaults she had suffered as a child in foster care was an important step that made it easier for other women to disclose their own experiences of abuse. Steinem’s 1972 article on the subject is titled The Woman Who Died Too Soon.
Contrary to this runs the still dominant idea of Monroe as a sex object – a woman whose purpose in life was to gratify men – who was complicit in her own objectification. Playboy named her the sexiest woman of the 20th century, as well it might; she appeared in the first issue of the magazine. She dressed for men, she admitted, considered it an honour to be lusted after, and was well aware that women very often regarded her as a competitor – a voluptuous threat, rather than any kind of sister. And she continues to invite prurience. Even now, eclipsing coverage of Banner’s feminist theory, is a competing book which asserts that the actress seduced the teenage girl who had founded her fan club – “My pulse leapt as Marilyn kissed my thigh again…” – and so breathlessly on. This is not the Monroe who begat Madonna and Lady Gaga; this is the Monroe whose willingness to commodify her own sexuality, without owning it herself, leads ultimately to the ubiquity of porn.
Related to this is the debate over Marilyn’s supposed stupidity. She is the archetypal dumb blonde, devoted to the pleasures of the body rather than the rigours of the mind. There is, of course, an agenda at work in choosing to regard her as such. It reinforces the idea that she is submissive, deserving exploitation not respect.
She was once photographed reading Ulysses, but what made the photo work – and it seems unlikely that Eve Arnold intended this – was the comic idea that Monroe could read and understand such a difficult book. Later, when she floated the idea of appearing as Grushenka in an adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov, a sceptical press challenged her to spell the character’s name. Yet Monroe’s personal library was extensive, including works by Joyce and Dostoevsky – and Robert Burns. Her diaries and letters, published as Fragments in 2010, confirmed her as introspective and cerebral, reversing decades of received wisdom. Hers was not an ordered mind, but this is more likely to reflect her unstable early life and sporadic formal education than any intellectual lack.
Norma Jeane Mortenson was born, fatherless verging on motherless, on June 1, 1926, in the charity ward of Los Angeles County Hospital. At less than two weeks old, she was placed into foster care and did not return to her mother, Gladys, until she was seven. However, Gladys, a film cutter at RKO Pictures, was mentally unstable and in late 1934 was forcibly removed to the Norwalk State Hospital. Norma Jeane became a ward of the state, living in orphanages, 12 different foster homes and with friends of the family. It was what we would now call a chaotic upbringing. “I was brought up differently to the average American child,” she said, “because the average child is brought up expecting to be happy.”
The notion that Monroe was a lot smarter than was generally believed is not simply revisionism. As early as 1952, the year before her breakthrough in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she was already quoting Robert Browning to Life magazine – as well as offering up her famous phrase about wearing nothing to bed but Chanel No 5. That posterity remembers the perfume but forgets the poetry proves only that we shouldn’t think too highly of posterity. “She wants very much,” the article concluded, “to be an actress”.
She became more than that. She became, first of all, a rags-to-riches story and later a cautionary tale – Cinderella meets Icarus. The bipolarity, the booze, the barbiturates; the failed relationships, the failed pregnancies; the way she is seen as at once desirable and pitiable, screwball turned screw-up – in all of these things, Monroe laid down a blueprint for the tragic celebrity arc along which so many young female stars travel to this day. Britney, Whitney, Amy. “They all fall apart,” as Nicki Minaj has sung, “like Marilyn Monroe.” The actress Megan Fox last year had a tattoo of Monroe removed from her right arm, worrying that the idol, with whose mental fragility Fox strongly identified, was a dark character who – even in the form of ink on skin – might attract negative energy.
This is Monroe’s double legacy. She is, at once, an enduring symbol of post-war freedom and optimism, and a reminder that even golden ages grow tarnished. It is, in fact, the troubled side of her character which might have proved a source of strength and inspiration had she survived through the 60s and into the 70s and beyond. As an artistically ambitious actress, would she have embraced and been embraced by counterculture filmmakers, such as Dennis Hopper, who owned a Warhol Marilyn and was, like her, a product of the Actors Studio? If so, it is possible to speculate about the films in which she might have appeared. She could – and how delicious is this thought? – have been Mrs Robinson.
But no. Her life ended on 5 August, 1962, a “presumed suicide” found naked beneath a sheet, several pill bottles on the bedside table. Yet it is precisely this premature death, this amputation of her future, that makes her so compulsively fascinating to us now. And it will never end. No doubt, 50 years hence, someone, somewhere will be looking back on a century without Marilyn Monroe, arguing about what she meant to the world, and wishing, sorrowfully that she had inhabited it longer. «
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